Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Sleeping Beauty (2011)

Sleeping Beauty (2011)
Dir. Julia Leigh

3 out of 5

Despite its erotic inclinations, a clinical numbness permeates Sleeping Beauty, the debut film from Australian writer-director Julia Leigh about a financially insecure college student (Emily Browning) having trouble making ends meet on the meager income from her several part-time jobs. All that changes when she responds to a newspaper ad placed by a mysterious madam (Rachael Blake) who hires out young women as lingerie-clad waitresses for the formal dinner parties of the rich and bizarre. Until long, Browning accepts further assignment as a "sleeping beauty," lying naked and completely sedate in a bedroom where men pay handsomely to do whatever they wish with her, so long as it does not include any method of penetration.

Aside from the general recklessness and desperation that motivates Browning to endure such treatment, Sleeping Beauty is centered on her near-complete absence of identity. She seems to experience life as a series of larks and temporary pleasures, and nearly always subject to the whims of others. Her ambivalence only enhances the shock value of her sleep "sessions" with various grotesques that are the most controversial and memorable parts of the film. If nothing else, Sleeping Beauty is a loaded treatise on masculinity and on men's absurd expectations of women shown at their most extreme. That's interesting enough, but the effect is perhaps queasier than Leigh intends. When Browning eventually shakes her wan disaffection long enough to smuggle a hidden camera into her workplace, it feels like a halfhearted stab at transforming the film into a tale of feminist redemption.

Save for Browning's platonic ideal (Ewan Leslie) who serves as a sort of suicidal Prince Charming, Sleeping Beauty references the rich symbolism of folk storytelling in title only. From the lack of any non-diagetic music to the minimalist script, Leigh establishes an atmosphere of strict asceticism. Her flat, tuneless direction establishes a mood that's occasionally haunting but mostly just soporific. This approach does have its merits - the director builds great anticipation into every one of Browning's encounters, and her character projects a weary vulnerability that makes her behavior understandable, even sympathetic. It's a gloriously sad and knowing performance, as if she's accepted her objectification as the price of personal and professional advancement. But for a film that traffics in such heady ideas, it's all a bit too direct. Though commendable, Sleeping Beauty just never feels as deep as it's meant to be, a dry work of horror with stillborn philosophical aspirations.

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